The Rebels; or, Boston before the Revolution/Chapter X

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She's beautiful; and therefore to be woo'd:
She's a woman; therefore to be won."
Henry VI

On the second day after this adventure, Mr. Wilson departed from Boston, in order to obtain an interview with Edward Percival, and ascertain the destiny of his daughter. Aware to how much danger she would be exposed, if she came forth into the world wealthy and inexperienced, beautiful and unguarded, he felt exceedingly anxious to give her into the protection of a young man whom he knew to be so entirely estimable as the one we have mentioned; at the same time he was painfully conscious of the unfavourable impression his own notorious character must produce; and, in order to remove, as far as possible, this obstacle to the respectability of his child, he resolved to arrange his dress, equipage, and manners with the most studious care. It was indeed a striking proof how much influence the affections have over the most reckless and depraved, that this man, so unfeeling and unprincipled to all the world beside, should evince tenderness and even delicacy, where this one beloved object was concerned.

The young man, for whom these preparations were making, was the son of Mr. Townsend's only sister; but in every respect unlike his parsimonious relation. He was generous, to a fault; and was remarkable for a keen sense of honour, united with a lordliness of character, that sometimes touched upon the very verge of tyranny. For his covetous uncle he could not always restrain his contempt; but he was by no means romantic enough to despise the wealth he had accumulated, and he really regarded the desolate old man with compassion that bordered on kindness.

He had from his earliest infancy been educated in Canada, and at the time we choose to present him to our readers, he was mounted on a dapple-gray steed, traversing the road between Montreal and Quebec,--- which, at that early period, was certainly none too smooth to typify the path of life. It was autumn,---and the earth, as if weary of the vanities of her children, was rapidly changing her varied and gorgeous drapery for robes as sad and unadorned as those of the cloister. The tall and almost leafless trees stood amid black and mouldering stumps, like giants among the tomb-stones; the faint-murmuring voice of the St. Lawrence was heard in the distance; and the winds rustled among the leaves as if imitating the sound of its waters.

The melancholy that we feel when gazing on natural scenes in the vigor of young existence, is but pleasure in a softened form. It has none of the bitterness, none of that soul-sickening sense of desolation, which visits us in our riper years, when we have had sad experience of the jarring interests, the selfish coldness, and the heartless caprice of the world. A rich imagination, like the transparent mantle of light, which the Flemish artists delight to throw around their pictures, gives its own glowing hues to the dreariness of winter and the sobriety of autumn, as well as to the freshness of spring and the verdure of summer; and if the affections are calm and pure, forests and streams, sky and ocean, sunrise and twilight, will always bring deep, serene, and holy associations. Under the influence of such feelings, our young traveller entered Quebec, just as the rays of the declining sun tinged the windows and spires with a fiery beam, and fell obliquely on the distant hills in tranquil radiance. At the sign of St. George and the Dragon, the horse made a motion to pause; and thus reminded of the faithful creature's extreme fatigue, he threw the bridle over his neck, and gave him into the care of a ragged hostler, who in bad French demanded his pleasure.

In the same language his hostess gave her brief salutation of, "A clever night to ride, please your honour."

Percival civilly replied to her courtesy, and gave orders for supper. The inn was unusually crowded and noisy; and, willing to escape awhile from the bustling scene, he walked out into the city. The loud ringing of the cathedral bells, summoning the inhabitants to evening prayer, and the rolling of drums from the neighbouring garrison, were at variance with the quietude of his spirit. He turned from the main street, and rambled along until he reached the banks of the little river St. Charles, about a mile westward from the town. He paused before the extensive and venerable-looking hospital, founded by M. de St. Vallier, the second bishop of Quebec. The high, steep roof, and the wide portals, beneath which various images of the saints were safely ensconced in their respective niches, were indistinctly seen in the dimness of twilight; but a rich gush of sound, from the interior of the building, poured on the ear, mingling the deep tones of the organ with woman's sweetest melody.

All that painting and music, pomp and pageantry can do, to dazzle the imagination and captivate the heart, has ever been employed by that tremendous hierarchy, "whose roots were in another world, and whose farstretching shadow awed our own." At this time, the effect was increased by that sense of mystery so delightful to the human soul. "Ora, ora pro nobis," was uttered by beings secluded from the world, taking no part in the busy game of life and separated from all that awakens the tumult of passion, and the eagerness of pursuit. How then could fancy paint them otherwise than lovely, placid, and spotless? Had Percival been behind the curtain, during these sanctified dramas,--- had he ever searched out the indolence, the filth, and the profligacy, secreted in such retreats,---the spell that bound him would have been broken; but it had been rivetted by early association, and now rendered peculiarly delightful by the excited state of his feelings. Resigning himself entirely to its dominion, he inquired of one who stood within the door, whether it was possible for him to gain admittance.

The man held out his hand for money, and having received a livre , answered, "Certainly, sir. You must be a stranger in Quebec, or you would know that there is to be a procession of white nuns to-night, in honour of M. de St. Vallier." So saying, he led the way into the building.

An old priest, exceedingly lazy in his manner, and monotonous in his tone, was reading mass, to which most of the audience zealously vociterated a response.

An arch, ornamented with basso relievo figures of the saints, on one side of the chancel, surmounted a door, which apparently led to an interior chapel; and beneath a similar one, on the opposite side, was a grated window, shaded by a large, flowing curtain of black silk.

Behind this provoking screen were the daughters of earth, whom our traveller supposed to be as beautiful as angels and as pure.

For some time, a faint response, a slight cough, or a deep drawn sigh, alone indicated the vicinity of the seraphic beings.

At length, however, the mass, with all its thousand ceremonies, was concluded. There was silence for a moment, and then was heard one of the low, thrilling chants of the church of Rome.

There was the noise of light, sandalled feet. The music died away to a delicious warbling, as faint and earnest as woman's entreaty;---then gradually rising to a bold, majestic burst of sound,---the door on the opposite side opened, and the sisterhood entered amid a glare of light.

That most of them were old and ugly passed unnoticed; for whatever visions an enthusiastical imagination might have conjured up, were certainly realized by the figure that preceded the procession.

Her forehead was pale and lofty,---her expression proud, but highly intellectual. A white veil, carelessly pinned about her brow, fell over her shoulders in graceful drapery; and as she glided along, the loose white robe, that constituted the uniform of her order, displayed to the utmost advantage that undulating outline of beauty, for which the statues of Psyche are so remarkable.

A silver crucifix was clasped in her hands, and her eyes were steadily raised toward heaven; yet there was something in her general aspect from which one would have concluded that the fair devotee had never known the world, rather than that she had left it in weariness or disgust.

Her eye happened to glance on our young friend, as she passed near him; and he fancied it rested a moment with delighted attention.

The procession moved slowly on in pairs, the apostles bearing waxen lights on either side, until the last white robe was concealed behind an arch at the other end of the extensive apartment.

The receding sounds of, "O sanctissima, O purissima," floated on the air mingled with clouds of frankincense; and the young man pressed his hand to his forehead, with a bewildered sensation, as if the airy phantoms of the magic lanthorn had just been flitting before him. A notice from the porter that the nuns were now at the altar performing silent mass, and that the doors were shortly to be closed, recalled his recollection; and slipping money into the hands of his informer, he left the church, and bent his footsteps towards the sign of St. George and the Dragon.

The wrangling and discordant sounds of an inn were never so unwelcome to him; and with peculiar vexation he heard a loud voice, inquiring of the landlady, "Are you sure that the tall, handsome young man I mentioned, with light brown hair and blue eyes, has been here to-night?"

"I tell you yes. In troth, he is not one a woman would be likely to forget."

"Where did he go, when he left here?"

"That is what I know nothing of. May-be he is a New England rebel, come to raise the country in arms against His Majesty;---and yet I should not think so. He spoke better French than the Yankees do."

The inquirer, who was none other than Mr. Wilson, took a heavy silver watch from his pocket, looked at the hour, and replaced it with an air of great impatience, as he said, "It is after nine. The trumpets from the fort have sounded the hour of rest. What can have become of him?"

"Perhaps he is one of your moon-struck folks that gaze on the stars till they forget to eat their supper. So much the better for those who take their pay whether or no."

Just at that moment, the subject of their conversation entered the room.

In a confused manner, Mr. Wilson stammered out, "Mr. Percival, I believe?"

"I think I have seen you before, Mr. Wilson," rejoined the young man, with a look of coldness bordering on hauteur.

"Pardon my intrusion, sir. I have business of importance."

"It is very well," replied Percival. "Be seated, if you please. I cannot attend to you, just now; for I have eaten nothing since I entered Quebec."

He was about to seat himself at the table; but compelled himself to say, "Have you taken supper, sir?"

"I did at an early hour; but I must acknowledge that I am ready for another."

"Move to the table, then, if you will."

The invitation, ungracious as it was, was accepted; and though neither the quality of the food, nor its cleanliness, would have tempted a New England appetite, the hostess certainly had no reason to conclude that either of her guests preferred star-gazing to solid food.

With hunger too keen to be fastidious, the travellers devoured a hearty meal, with no other interruption than an occasional bow from Mr. Wilson, as he raised the mug of cider to his lips.

When the landlady had retired, and closed the door after her, the young gentleman inquired what important business had procured him this unexpected visit.

"You have an uncle in Boston," said Wilson, who seemed to be strangely awed by the gentleman-like manner of his auditor.

Percival bowed to this unimportant remark, and his companion continued, "You expect considerable property from him, I presume?"

"I have always treated Mr. Townsend with proper attention; and I am his only relation; but these things are very uncertain," replied Percival.

"Well, sir, I have come to inform you upon what grounds the whole of his large property may be insured to you."

"You, sir!" exclaimed Percival, with an expression of contempt so strong and undisguised, that Wilson felt his blood boil in his veins, as he answered, "Yes, I, sir. Your uncle has committed crimes for which the rigid laws of England would take his life; and the evidence of them is in my hands. To bring the matter to a point at once, I have a daughter. If you will marry her, the fortune is yours;---if not, it all descends to her, with the exception of a trifling legacy. The will is made and attested; and should he presume to alter it, his life must pay the forfeit."

Percival eyed him for a moment with extreme scorn, and asked, "What is the meaning of this artifice, sir?"

"It is no trick," replied Wilson; and he handed him a letter from Mr. Townsend, and another from the lawyer who had written the will.

The young gentleman to whom they were addressed, had too much pride to think of such a father-in-law with any thing like complacency. Besides, he had indulged very romantic ideas concerning love; and he was by no means pleased with the business air of this transaction. He thought of affection, as some people think of religion, that it could not be genuine, unless it came upon him at once with irresistible power; and however apocryphal his creed might be, the white-robed vision he had that evening seen, tended not a little to confirm it.

After one or two impatient strides across the room, he stopped suddenly, and said, "A wife is not to be bought and sold like your southern slaves; nor are my affections like a garment, to be put on and off as interest may dictate. My uncle must dispose of his money as he chooses. I trust to my own energies. Good evening, sir."

"Stop, I beg of you," said Wilson earnestly. "Do not decide till you have seen Gertrude. I am a wretch, and you know it; but she has been kept from all the pollutions of this tempting world, and has grown up in the convent of St. Vallier, as pure, as lovely, and as elegant as the proudest lady in the land."

"Is she---is she a novitiate at St. Vallier's?" eagerly inquired Percival.

"She is; and how deeply soever I may have plunged into guilt, nobody can say that I have not been to her all that I should be. It is impressed upon my mind that I shall not live long. No matter whether I am a fool for believing it or not. When I am gone, she will be left beautiful and wealthy, an easy prey to the sharper or the sensualist. Your character is all that I wish my own had been; and my last earthly cares would be over, if you were her protector."

"But," said Percival, crimsoning to the very temples, "even if she is all I hope, she is---illegitimate."

Mr. Wilson drew his breath hard, in the agony of his spirit; after a pause, he replied, "I was the husband of her mother. Sit down, young man, and I will tell you all; though it is a subject on which I never meant to speak to mortal man. I was once as proud as you are; and perhaps with as much reason. The world prophesied my success in life, and considered me a master-spirit, born to sway my fellows. With a gentleman and a scholar I still have some touches of my former spirit; but I will say no more on that point. In my best days, I won the heart of a beautiful young creature, the daughter of a miserable, half-crazed woman in Halifax. I was aristocratic then,---and it was long before I could bring myself to think of marriage with one so much my inferior. However, her confiding fondness gained upon my affections, and I finally made a sort of half atonement by a private marriage." He stopped, and his whole frame shuddered. "It must be told," continued he. "Captain Fitzherbert was then in port. He was too handsome, and too attentive to my young wife. Gertrude knew it gave me uneasiness; but conscious of her innocence, and loving to exert her power, she continued as gay and as free as ever. Day after day passed in this manner, till she became a mother. Fitzherbert dared to reproach me for my ungenerous conduct; and Gertrude, after having besought me, with tearful eyes, to make our marriage public, told me that she had no friend in the world but Fitzherbert. Maddened to insupportable jealousy, I....stabbed her." From different causes, both were silent for a long time; and the convulsed features of Wilson alone betrayed his agitation. "She was innocent," he added; "and here--- here," pressing his hand upon his heart, "her memory `biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.' After that dreadful deed, I never cared what became of me. I have been a drunkard, a pirate, and a ruffian;--- but a father still."

He wrung Percival's hand with desperate energy, as he spoke, and the tears started to his eyes. There was an air of majesty about him, fallen as he was, that found its way to the young man's heart. When he first spoke of his crime, Percival could not restrain a loathing expression of hatred and horror; but now he turned to the window to conceal how much he had been affected by such deep and frenzied remorse.

When the conversation was again resumed, Wilson said, "For a few weeks the infant Gertrude was in the hands of her grandmother; but I could not trust the sweet little being, now doubly dear for her murdered mother's sake, in the care of one so low and vicious. I therefore gave orders that she should be placed at the hospital of St. Vallier, and that her grandmother should never be permitted to see her. I gave money enough to ensure a punctual obedience to my commands, and departed for the West Indies, where many a bloody deck has borne witness to my courage and my sins. I have seldom seen Gertrude. Of late years, she has so earnestly entreated to come out into the world, and I have been so entirely unable to make her situation respectable, that I have forborne to visit her."

To this frank avowal, Percival replied by reminding the wretched man that it was never too late to repent of crime, and to atone for it by a life of usefulness and piety.

"The best thing you can do," said he, "is to purchase some secluded dwelling, to which you can retire with your daughter, and there forget every thing but the duties you owe to God and her."

"It cannot be, young man," answered Wilson. "Here on my vitals the vulture will prey forever. Besides, ought one so young and fair, to be thus buried for a father's guilt?"

"She will have sufficient wealth to purchase every luxury," replied he; "and no doubt she would think the freedom of such a situation perfect paradise, compared with her convent."

"Mr. Percival," said the father, taking his hand most fervently, "had I sooner met with one that would have advised me thus, one whose friendship would have soothed my tortured soul, I should not have been the wreck I now am. Alas, how little are the strong in virtue aware of the cruel temptations and the bitter misery of a heart willing to return to the paths of rectitude, if the voice of kindness would but give it welcome and encouragement."

With more respect than he had yet evinced, Percival exhorted him to convert the property of his daughter into money as soon as she came into possession of it, and to retire to some country unacquainted with his crimes, where he might fulfil the duties of a citizen and christian.

"Young man," exclaimed Wilson, "I forced your uncle to make a will in my favour; but I protest I am sorry for it, from the bottom of my soul."

"If it is the means of reforming one from vice, and of making another happy, I shall esteem it well bestowed. I can make a fortune for myself," rejoined Percival.

"Then you reject the idea of being connected with such a one as I am?"

Percival then frankly told him of the captivating being he had seen in the procession of White Nuns, and expressed his wish to ascertain her character and history. Full of the belief that the person described was his beloved daughter, Wilson the next morning applied to the Lady Abbess for an interview.

The torment of the never dying worm ceased for a while, when the fair creature clasped him to her heart, and exclaimed, "Father, dear father."

"Well, Gertrude," said he, looking on her with great affection, "I see you have not taken the black veil."

"Oh, no. Did you think I ever could?"

"Then you still wish to go out and look upon the gay world?"

"I think," said the young novitiate, with a deep sigh, "that I should come back here more contented, if I could go away for a few years."

Smiling at casuistry dictated by the heart, her father answered, "I mean that you shall return to New England with me, my love."

Gertrude clasped her hands, with an exclamation of joy.

Her father smiled and left the room. When he returned with Mr. Percival, animation was still glowing on her fine features.

Both blushed deeply, when they were introduced; for each remembered having seen the other, the preceding evening.

Mr. Wilson eagerly watched their countenances, and saw that all was as he wished. It was the first moment of pure enjoyment he had known for years; and he felt then as if he had strength to be all that his unsuspecting child believed him.

During the general conversation that followed, guilelessness of thought and childlike simplicity of manner completed the conquest, which beauty had begun.

The hours in which novitiates were allowed to receive visiters having expired, both bade Gertrude farewell, with a promise to call again the ensuing morning.

The Abbess said that her young favourite was strangely bewildered during that day. She failed to respond to the "Dominus vobiscum" of the priest, and the hymn which she had daily sung to the Holy Mother for many years, escaped from her memory.

The interview terminated much as Percival had hoped, and even expected. Perhaps had he not believed the heiress of his uncle and the stately devotee to be the same, he would not have acquiesced so quietly in the arrangements of Mr. Wilson. We must admit that on his way to the convent, he conjectured whether, in case of a disappointment, he could not prove his uncle's will to have been obtained by force, without risking the life of the poor old man. "If Wilson is disposed to be virtuous," thought he, "surely a handsome legacy is sufficient to give his daughter honourable support, and to keep him from temptation."

Very different ideas occupied his mind as he returned. He gazed on the monastery as long as its towering roof could be discerned. "How glad I am," thought he, "that I met her as I did. I could not have been in love, had I known that it was expected of me."

As for Mr. Wilson, it was the happiest day he had known since his youth; but when he retired to rest, he felt a sort of uneasy, reluctant wish to palliate his own crime,---and he could not help murmuring, "She does look cursedly like Fitzherbert."

Necessary business detained the father and lover a few weeks, which no doubt passed rapidly and delightfully enough. Every thing that Percival heard of Gertrude from the Abbess and nuns, strengthened the impressions he had received.

With many a sigh, and many a bitter tear, the unsophisticated girl bade adieu to the sisterhood; (for the ties of habit are not easily burst asunder; especially when formed in seclusion, and rivetted by daily kindness;) and though they said they only wept at giving her up to a sinful world, it was evident they yielded to the strong current of natural affection.

When the bride and bridegroom stood before the altar in the church where they first met, it was said the priest had never united a lovelier couple. Percival was somewhat in the Adonis style of beauty,---and might perhaps have been charged with effeminacy, had not a highly arched nose, and a general loftiness of expression, redeemed him from the imputation.

Gertrude was as stately as the Juno of Titian; and had the same vivid glow of life, and health, and beauty.

These charms were certainly heightened by pearl-coloured damask, and Brussels lace, closely fitted to her majestic from; but they were by no means her surest hold upon the affections of her high-minded husband.

Accustomed from her earliest youth to an implicit obedience to a superior, whom she fondly loved, she had acquired a most charming ductility of character; and now that she was to be introduced to a world, of which she was so totally ignorant, she peculiarly felt the need of some guiding hand. To her husband, therefore, she looked for support and encouragement, with all the winning deference of woman's gentlest and most exclusive affection.